Study Guide

Number the Stars Themes

By Lois Lowry

  • Friendship

    A best friend—it's a lucky thing to have, don't you think? A BFF always has your back and understands you like nobody else does. You know, they just get you. In Number the Stars, Annemarie and Ellen face a whole boatload of scary issues, but one thing's for sure: they have each other. When the chips are down, Annemarie sticks by her friend. Oh, and to top it all off, she saves her life, too.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. If their roles were reversed, do you think Ellen would be as good a friend to Annemarie as Annemarie is to her?
    2. Does religion factor into the girls' friendship at all? Why or why not? 
    3. Based on what happens at the end of the book, how do you think Annemarie and Ellen's friendship will develop?
    4. How would you compare Ellen and Annemarie's friendship with the friendship between their mothers?

    Chew on This

    If Annemarie and Ellen weren't best friends, Annemarie wouldn't have been willing to risk her life for Ellen. Friendship is a powerful force.

    Annemarie and Ellen's friendship is like a metaphor for the relationship between the Danes and the Jews. Neither is concerned about differences in religion, and both are strong enough to withstand the Nazis' attacks.

  • Courage

    First things first: all of the good-guy characters in Number the Stars are courageous. We just wanted to lay that out there. Okay, moving on. Usually we associate bravery and courage with doing big things and making grand gestures. You know, drawing your sword to face a dragon or coming up with the guts to stare down the school bully. And Annemarie definitely has this kind of courage. She travels through the woods by herself, fending off Nazis (and Nazi dogs!) along the way. But in Number the Stars, our wise little lady learns that it's sometimes easier to be brave if you're kept in the dark; some things are just too scary to face. What do you think? Is ignorance bliss? Or should we always be ready to face what comes our way?

    Questions About Courage

    1. Who is the book's bravest character? Who is the most cowardly?
    2. Annemarie learns that sometimes it's easier to be brave if you don't really know what you're up against. Do you agree or disagree with this point of view? Why? 
    3. According to the descriptions in the book, do you think Denmark's King Christian is brave? Why or why not?
    4. How are the courage that Annemarie shows and the courage that Ellen shows different? How are they similar?

    Chew on This

    The most courageous act in the book is when Annemarie carries the mysterious package to Henrik. Talk about bravery.

    Peter's courage is inspired by Lise's death. He has an easier time throwing himself into the cause of the Resistance because he has less to lose.

  • Identity

    Remember that Star of David necklace that Ellen is wearing when the Nazi soldiers first come to the house? You know, the one that graces the cover of almost every publication of Number the Stars? That's a symbol of Ellen's Jewish identity. But even when Annemarie has to rip the necklace right off her, Ellen is still Jewish. See, identity is something that sticks with you—no matter who is trying to get in your way. Knowing that the Jews could maintain their identity under persecution from the Nazis makes us feel like we can hold onto ours, too, no matter what the situation.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Does the war change the characters' identities in Number the Stars?If so, which aspects of their identities change? If not, why not?
    2. At different points, Ellen and Annemarie both have to pretend they're somebody else. Is this equally as tough for both of them? What's at stake for each of them when they're pretending?
    3. Who is Great-aunt Birte? Why is she important? 
    4. How did the big reveal about Annemarie's older sister, Lise, change your opinion of her? Or did it change your opinion at all?
    5. The Nazis identify Ellen first and foremost as a Jew. Is that how she would identify herself? Are there other aspects of her identity that are just as important to her?

    Chew on This

    Ellen doesn't have to change much when she pretends to be Lise Johansen. After all, she pretty much feels like Annemarie's sister already.

    In Number the Stars, young people are told not to stand out—they need to blend into the crowd for their own safety. This just wouldn't fly in 21st century America.

  • Lies and Deceit

    In Number the Stars, lying can sometimes mean the difference between life and death. Think about it: Ellen pretends to be the Johansens' daughter, the whole gang fakes a funeral in order to cover up their plan, Henrik pretends he's not hiding Jews in his ship. Without these lies, many of our beloved characters wouldn't have made it. It's pretty unusual to find a book that gives us the green light on a few white lies, don't you think? But that green light serves as a reminder that Annemarie and her family were living in a totally different world. Our rules just don't apply.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. We grow up hearing that lying is just plain bad. Do the events in this book prove that wrong? Why or why not?
    2. Based on the characters' actions in this book, does it seem harder to keep a secret or tell a lie?
    3. Do any of the characters in the book manage not to lie?
    4. If you were Annemarie, would you want to hear the whole truth from Henrik? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The characters in Number the Stars prove that in certain circumstances, lying is okay.

    Annemarie should have told Ellen what was going on once she found out. She's her best friend, for crying out loud, and honesty is always the best policy.

  • Warfare

    War might seem like a far-off, hazy reality for us, but that sure wasn't the case for Annemarie and her family. In Number the Stars, war affects every part of daily life for the Danes. On the survival level, their food supply is limited and they have to be careful about how much heat they use. On the freedom level, they can't go where they want when they want (and we're not talking about a trip to the mall here) without fear of getting in trouble. And, of course, in the end, even ten-year-old Annemarie gets directly involved in the war, helping save Jewish lives from Nazi persecution.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. According to the book's characters, why didn't Denmark fight to resist the Nazi invasion? Do you think this was the right decision?
    2. Why do you think the book starts a few years into the war, instead of starting before the war began?
    3. Pick two characters and explain how the war affects their lives. What changes do they have to make? What dangers do they face as a result of the war? 
    4. What do you think happened to Annemarie's family in the two years after the Rosens went to Sweden? Why do you think those years are left out of the book?

    Chew on This

    Lois Lowry should have faced the whole issue of war and the Holocaust head on. She shies away from it too much.

    Even though Number the Stars takes place entirely in cities and towns (not right on the battlefield) it still gives us a powerful image of what it means to be living during wartime.

  • Fear

    Okay, okay, we admit it: Shmoop is afraid of giant spiders. But we'd take a million giant spiders over the kind of fear the characters face in Number the Stars. What they're up against is pretty terrifying. This is one of the worst periods in history, after all. But it's also important to think about how they handle their fear. And if you check out what we have to say about "Courage," you'll see that they pretty much rock it.

    Questions About Fear

    1. What's the scariest moment in the book? Why is that moment scarier than the rest? Are there any moments in the book where the characters aren't frightened?
    2. In Number the Stars, is it more dangerous to be afraid or to be brave? 
    3. Do the Nazis have anything to be afraid of?
    4. How do Lois Lowry's writing style and tone contribute to the fear the reader feels?

    Chew on This

    The fear that Ellen feels and the fear that Annemarie feels are totally different.

    Number the Stars proves that courage always conquers fear.

  • Prejudice

    This one kind of goes without saying, don't you think? The Holocaust was all about prejudice. The Nazis judged and persecuted people based on their race and religion. But while the Nazis singled out Jews because of their differences, the Johansens and the Rosens are friends in spite of their differences. The connection between these two families in Number the Stars reminds us just how pointless (and baseless) prejudice really is.

    Questions About Prejudice

    1. Of course the Nazis are prejudiced against Jews, but are there any other forms of prejudice in Number the Stars?
    2. What specific moments in the novel prove that Annemarie is not prejudiced against people who are different from her?
    3. How can you apply the lessons of acceptance you learn from Annemarie to your own life? What kind of prejudice still exists today? And how do you feel about it?

    Chew on This

    In Number the Stars, religious difference seems so normal for so many of the characters. This emphasizes the absurdity of the Nazis' desire to punish people because of their religion.

    Annemarie and her family are not in any danger from the Nazis until they decide to help the Rosens. In a way, they choose to share in their friends' persecution and danger.

  • Criminality

    Number the Stars kind of turns the idea of being a criminal upside down. Good people like Henrik, Peter, and Annemarie's whole family do things that are technically against the law—and punishable by death, to boot. What we mean is, according the Nazi laws that are in place in Denmark in the early 1940s, they're all criminals. But according to our standards of decency and morality, the Johansens and Peter are simply doing the right thing, and the Nazis are the criminals. Of course that raises the question: what does it mean to really commit a crime? Is it all just a matter of perspective?

    Questions About Criminality

    1. Do the regular rules of crime apply in Annemarie's world? Why or why not?
    2. Was Peter putting the Johansens in danger by committing criminal acts?
    3. Why didn't Annemarie's parents tell her about her sister's involvement in the Resistance? Do you think it was better that she didn't know?

    Chew on This

    Number the Stars argues that, during wartime, honoring your own moral code is way more important than obeying the laws of a foreign government.

    The Nazis are the only criminals in this book.